Up to speed: Phelps, teammates looking good in Olympic swim trials
OMAHA, Neb. -- Having just won the 400 freestyle in American record time, Larsen Jensen was happy, buoyant and radiating confidence in the mixed zone at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha last Sunday. That is, until the subject of his next event, the 200 freestyle, came up.
"Our depth in that event is just phenomenal," said Jensen. "It's going to take a strong swim to make the top 16, much less the top eight. I don't think I have the speed to keep up with those guys."
Jensen did make the final eight Tuesday night, thanks to the fact that top qualifier Ryan Lochte scratched the event to focus on the 100 backstroke. But he was right about what he lacked. He finished more than 3½ seconds behind the winner, Michael Phelps, who just missed a world record when he took a double breath on the final turn.
"That was by far the fastest 200 free field I've ever been in, including worlds, Olympics, everything," said Phelps. "Our relay team has the potential to be the best four guys who have ever swum the 800 free relay."
That's a happy thought for national team director Mark Schubert, who vividly remembers watching Australia crush the U.S. in the men's 4x200 free relay in world record time at the Sydney Olympics eight years ago.
"I can remember all the coaches standing on the pool deck going, how are we ever going to catch the Australians?" he says.
In Athens, the American team of Phelps, Lochte, Klete Keller and Peter Vanderkaay did, beating the Australians for the gold when Keller dramatically held off Ian Thorpe on the final leg. Three years later, the U.S. regained the world record, which it had last held in 1992. "That was a sweet victory," says Schubert. "The U.S. takes a lot of pride in that relay."
The U.S. has historically had good depth in the 200 free -- they won every Olympic 800 relay they participated in between 1960 and 1988, and again in 1996 and 2004.
But there hasn't been an American Olympic champion in the 200 free since 1976, and nobody has done better than bronze since 1984. The 200 free was, in fact, the only individual event Phelps entered and didn't win in Athens.
He made some amends at the 2007 worlds, when he blasted the field and lopped two-tenths of a second off of Thorpe's 2001 record. But there's no doubt he'll be particularly motivated to win the gold in Beijing. Pieter Van Den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, the winner in 2000 and the silver medalist in 2004, will most likely be in the field (2004 winner Thorpe has retired), but Schubert thinks Phelps' greatest competition will be himself.
"If you watched him swim in Melbourne, he won by well over a body length," Schubert says. "If he has that has that kind of race, I don't see anybody repeating his time."
Rowdy Gaines, who set the 200 free world record in 1982 in a time 1:48.93, (and was the last American to hold the record before Phelps regained it last year) was impressed that the top six finishers Tuesday night all broke 1:47.
"It shows you how far this event has come in the US," he says. "The 100 free has been just the opposite. Lately the 200 free has been a much better event for the U.S. than the 100 free. It's because there are all these 400 guys who are able to come down."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, agrees. "A number of these guys are coming from a longer race to a shorter race, which in my estimation is the best way to swim the 200 meters. Look at Ryan, Michael, Peter. ... Erik Vendt (a miler who finished sixth in the 200 free Tuesday night, good for a spot on the relay) is a perfect example."
That's a better strategy, he says, than the way the U.S. used to approach the 200, by having 100-free sprinters try to move up in distance. "That's why the Australians were kicking our butts," he says. "So we caught on and now that's how we're doing the 200. (The distance training) gives (the swimmers) a better base."
The event still draws plenty of sprinters, however, and their mixing with the distance guys makes for a compelling race.
"It's pretty interesting how many different strategies you see," says Vendt. "You'll have sprinters and short distance guys that take it out real fast and hold on, and then you have guys like me and Larsen who basically even-split it. Then you have guys like Peter who can attack the whole thing, and you have guys like Michael who can do whatever they want whenever they want. I think that's what makes the 200 free one of the most exciting races there is. It's also one of the most painful, because you sprint the whole thing."
You don't need to tell Gaines, who also held the 100 free world record for four years in the early '80s. He recalls the 1984 Olympic trials 200 free, in which he was the favorite, as the most painful swim of his life.
"It hurt so much I couldn't even get out of the pool," he recalls. "I finished seventh. It was my first event to make the Olympics and it put so much pressure on me because the 100 was the only event left for me. (For the record, he made the team and won the gold in L.A.) I went out in 52 flat and died like a rock. I saw six guys go right by me. I swam a stupid race, but the point was, it hurt so much."
On Tuesday, Phelps swam a tactically great race, according to Bowman, "except for that double breath." And if there was excessive pain involved, Phelps wasn't saying so. "Oh, no," says Bowman. "He has a lot more in the tank."